Adjusting the Conscience Through the Word & Prayer (Part 12)

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5)

These verse were probably written 5-10 years after Romans and 1 Corinthians. Paul’s teaching on the conscience was well circulated in writing and taught in person throughout his three missionary journeys. This seems to allow him to be very brief with his statements in 1 Timothy. He gave Timothy a warning about false teachers who will come into the church. They will have two false teachings: forbidding marriage and certain foods.

These are familiar conscience issues. Marriage is an issue of the conscience in 1 Corinthians 7 and 9. Food is perhaps Paul’s most commonly used example (Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8-10) of an issue of conscience. But there are new things to be learned from this short passage.

Why do these men have and teach these scruples? Because their consciences have been “seared.” This idea of searing the conscience is found only in this passage. In fact, the word καυστηριάζω (“cauterize”) is found nowhere else in the New Testament. What does Paul mean by this?

The first view is that Paul used “burned” to illustrate loss of sensitization. Scarred skin can lack sensation, referring to a conscience that, having been often sinned against and ignored, has become insensitive. The lesson would then be that we must follow our conscience because if we don’t, we will stop feeling its promptings concerning right and wrong, and we will then be without an important God-given moral compass. This doesn’t fit well with the situation in 1 Timothy 4, though, where we find overly-strict teachers.

Luther’s view was the opposite. The false teachers were overly scrupulous; their consciences are too sensitive.1 He suggested Paul had in mind the hypersensitivity of a fresh burn.

There is a better view. In the TDNT, we find this description of καυστηριάζω:2

In the NT the word occurs only once in a figurative sense. At 1 Tm. 4:2 the false teachers are described as men who have been branded in their consciences, i.e., who bear the mark of slaves. The meaning is that they are in bondage to secret sin. Proclaiming a doctrine which makes strong ascetic demands, they are themselves controlled by self-seeking and covetousness. They are secretly the slaves of satanic and demonic powers which make them their instruments.

In the background stands the custom of branding slaves and criminals. Among the Greeks, branding was mainly a punishment for runaway slaves, but at his own whim the owner could punish other offenses in the same way. The mark was usually put on the forehead with an iron.

Fee discusses this view: “But it is equally possible that he intends to suggest that their consciences carry Satan’s brand (as NEB, Bernard, Kelly). This seems more in keeping with the context.”3 Lock prefers it: “Not ‘rendered callous as by medical treatment,’…but rather ‘branded with the brand of slavery to their true master, Satan.’”4

Being “seared” in one’s conscience indicates neither a strict nor a silent conscience. Rather, it means that one’s moral center is ruled by an evil master (a demon).5 There is a spiritual evil behind the moral positions of some people. These are extreme cases and of course it would be a mistake to assert that all Christian leaders who teach strict scruples are led by demons.

Good Teaching

If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. (1 Timothy 4:6)

Paul told Timothy exactly how to deal with these false teachers. A good Christian teacher must teach the truth: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” When teachers want to force strict scruples on their followers, they should be countered with the truth that everything created by God is to be received (under the right conditions, which we’ll discuss below). When we encounter teachers who demand their own scruples—even if they are led by demons—we need nothing more than God’s Word to correct them.

One lesson that should impact every Bible teacher and preacher is that the “good servant” teaches that God’s gifts may be received with thanksgiving. We must note that one of the convictions Paul expressed as the teaching of the “good servant” was a conviction that Paul personally held. He was convicted not to marry. He favored the conviction of celibacy.6 But he said good teachers teach that marriage should be received with thanksgiving. When we are convinced of an application, we may teach that application. But we must teach the underlying personal nature of it. Our logical biblical application should not be generalized and forced on others.

Some believe “that” in v. 3 refers to foods only.7, 8 But it makes more sense to understand “that” as referring to both marriage and food9 because Paul’s single solution then covers both errors of the false teachers. If we insist that “that” only refers to food, then Paul left Timothy with no answer for the marriage question. Further, the answer works for both issues. Marriage and foods were both created by God and given to mankind. They should both be received with thanksgiving. Ridderbos says,

Those who believe and have right knowledge of the truth (cf. 1 Cor. 8:1ff.) look to God as the Creator of what the false teachers forbid use. This holds for eating and drinking and marrying. What in faith and with thanksgiving is received from the hand of God is not to be rejected. It gets its holiness through the Word of God that speaks of the redemption of the whole life, and through prayer in which it is received believingly (1 Tim. 4:1ff).10

We have two tests here:

  1. Bible—Is it explicitly forbidden?
  2. Thanksgiving—Can I thank God for it?

The first is ontological; the second is individual and introspective of the heart. The same test of prayer appears in Romans 14:6, “The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God,” and 1 Corinthians 10:30, “If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?” Things are demonstrated to be acceptable (“made holy”) by the test of thanksgiving.

The test of individual conscience can never change the ontological status of an action. Paul and the “weak” of 1 Corinthians 8 could not eat in the temple, but the meat was still “of itself” good.11 Even though Paul was convicted not to marry, marriage was still ontologically good and in that sense, Paul could say it was his “right.”12

For those in 1st century Roman Empire, idolatrous food and wine were everywhere. Food was a significant issue of conscience. Thanksgiving for food was both a test and real thanksgiving. For them it was a test of conscience, which is rarely the case for us. Therefore, when we pray before our meals, we follow the letter of 1 Timothy 4, but miss the real point of the passage!

For us today, other things are much more likely to find rejection by our consciences.13 If we think about these issues, and apply Scripture to them, we will find that the test of thanksgiving becomes meaningful. This means if we are to apply Paul’s instructions to Timothy to ourselves, we need to pray about other things besides food as we submit our whole lives to the Word of God. We should thank God for—submit to the test of prayer—every TV show or website we view, the cars we buy, the clothes we wear, the wine we drink, etc., etc. Then we will pause and wonder, “Wait—did God give me this TV show? Can I say God wants me to watch it?” and “Does God want me to have this thing I’m going to buy? Or would He rather I deny myself something for the sake of my family, or missions?” and “Can I really thank God for this glass of wine?” and “Can I really thank God for this shirt, knowing that in my heart, I wear it because I want to inspire lust?”

In this way, whatsoever we do, we must do for the glory of God. Pastor David Doran has this to say about thankfulness as a test of conscience:

How do I eat for God’s glory? The answer is found earlier in that same passage when he says, “You give thanks.” That is, when you participate in that meal, you offer up thanks to God for it. So one practical way—you can ask this question, ‘Can I do this for God’s glory?’—Can you say before whatever you do, “Lord, thank you for the opportunity to do this. Thank you for giving this to me”? If you cannot say sincerely to the Lord, “Thank you for this gift,” then in all probability it’s not a gift from Him to be enjoyed.14

Keep praying before your food. But the test of thankfulness ought to be a check on every part of your life, especially things that you know might bother your conscience.

Notes

1 Bachman, E. Theodore, Ed. Luther’s Works, Volume 35: Word and Sacrament I, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960, p. 138ff.

2 J. Schneider, Gerhard Kittel, ed., TDNT, Vol. III, pp. 644-5.

3 Fee, Gordon, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1988, p. 98-99.

4 Lock, Walter, D.D., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Pastoral Epistles, T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1978, p. 48.

5 A similar thing in our culture: A bunch of macho guys are at Joe’s house watching football. Joe’ wife comes in and says, “You need to empty the garbage.” Joe jumps up and goes to do it. Somebody says, “Ha—Joe’s whipped!” Is he saying that Joe’s wife has has been beating him with a whip? No. It’s a reference to a slave-master relationship. She’s in charge. That’s the real meaning. Paul meant, “branded like a slave,” which means, “Their consciences are the servants of cruel masters.”

6 1 Corinthians 7:7, “I wish that all were as I myself am.” 1 Corinthians 7:38 “So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.”

7 Towner, Philip H., The Letters to Timothy and Titus, NICNT, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 2006, p. 296.

8 Johnson, Luke Timothy, The First and Second Letters to Timothy, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008, p. 240. “I take the neuter pronoun ha as including both marriage and food, even, though, grammatically, it might refer back to only food.”

9 A.T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament In Light of Historical Research, p. 411. Such pronouns are used “without regard to gender (not to number) of the antecedent.” If the antecedent is compound (“to marry and to abstain from foods”), or if the antecedent is in the form of a verb (“to marry”), the neuter may be used. For comparison, compound antecedents of mixed number and gender which share a pronoun, see Phil. 4:3, 2 Thess. 1:4, 2Peter 3:13, 2John 1:1, Acts 15:29.

10 Ridderbos, Herman, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1977, p. 302.

11 1 Corinthians 9:5

12 1 Corinthians 9:6

13 See Andy Naselli’s list, found on his blog and in this series in Part 6.

14 Doran, David, Wise Choices in a Wicked World 3, Pastor, Inner City Baptist Church, 2007. This whole sermon is highly commendable; the quote above starts at 21:05.

Dan Miller Bio


Dan Miller is an ophthalmologist in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He is a husband, father, and part-time student.

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There are 17 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Appreciate this explanation of 1 Timothy 4:1-5. 

The test of thanksgiving doesn't stand alone, of course, because--as you've explained in previous posts, the conscience may create feelings where the mind knows it to be in error... due to personal history. But it is truly a powerful and neglected tool for prompting a submissive look at our choices.

Bert Perry's picture

Not that I think you're out of line at all in pointing out the obvious context of 1 Timothy 4, but wow, that is harsh.  But that said, it strikes me that a number of people leading very public campaigns against any number of things--e.g. Bill Gothard, Doug Philipps, Jack Schaap, etc..--have been uncovered in such secret sins.  Not the only cause for getting caught in such, but certainly one.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Bert, Wrong thread maybe?

Bert Perry's picture

Aaron; here's what I'm referring to.  Isn't it harsh? 

Being “seared” in one’s conscience indicates neither a strict nor a silent conscience. Rather, it means that one’s moral center is ruled by an evil master (a demon).5 There is a spiritual evil behind the moral positions of some people. These are extreme cases and of course it would be a mistake to assert that all Christian leaders who teach strict scruples are led by demons.

And here's another one that's harsh:

n the NT the word occurs only once in a figurative sense. At 1 Tm. 4:2 the false teachers are described as men who have been branded in their consciences, i.e., who bear the mark of slaves. The meaning is that they are in bondage to secret sin. 

See what I'm getting at here?  Now it's not a guarantee that the people I mentioned fall into this category, but given the parallels, I think we might do well to ask the question.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Dan Miller's picture

Actually, it is harsh. Paul is saying that good teachers refrain from teaching their own convictions as universal wrongs. Instead, good teachers teach that what God has given may be enjoyed (if passes Word and prayer test). And Paul himself was convicted of celibacy.

On the other hand, teaching that one of God's gifts is evil is not just a kinda bad idea. It's the stuff of demons. So, yeah, that's pretty harsh. (It's also the basis for a lot of Luther's extreme language about the pope.)

Dan Miller's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
... The test of thanksgiving doesn't stand alone, of course, ... But it is truly a powerful and neglected tool for prompting a submissive look at our choices.
I like how you put that - "a submissive look at our choices." I might use that phrase later. Reminds me of Paul's last words to the strong-Eating-in-the-Temple Corinthians: "Are we stronger than God?"

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Bert, I was confused but I think I follow you now.

I found the piece personally convicting. On "submissive look," I've just so often found that we go to the activity of looking at Scripture and reasoning -- in reference to a controversial question of entertainment or dress, etc. -- with our minds already made up. 

The "already made up" is implied in the lack of real engagement... Emotional defensiveness and word-bludgeoning (you legalists!), etc. instead. That and ignoring the actual arguments of any contrary point of view (straw man, or red herring, or some other dodge instead.)

But we haven't really looked until we've started out with "I am willing to give this up" or "I am willing to accept that this is harmless."

Caveat: sometimes it's just that we are joining the conversation having already thought the root questions through long ago... and see the answers as extremely obvious. So then it's an exercise in mercy and patience.

Bert Perry's picture

I try to be confusing, Aaron.  :^)

No, seriously, I was simply struck that of all the times I'd read through that passage--one time through the Scriptures per year since about 1989 plus whatever pastors spent preaching and other times I'd seen that passage, I'd never really clued in on that.  Which, given some of my perspectives, is simultaneously convicting and hilarious to me.

Point well taken as well that it can be really hard to jettison one's own biases and actually read the text, too.  I like the gut check you propose--are you willing to agree that what you think is true is in fact not Biblical, and thus give up something or allow something you'd thought was quite different?

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

jreeseSr's picture

The first view is that Paul used “burned” to illustrate loss of sensitization. Scarred skin can lack sensation, referring to a conscience that, having been often sinned against and ignored, has become insensitive. The lesson would then be that we must follow our conscience because if we don’t, we will stop feeling its promptings concerning right and wrong, and we will then be without an important God-given moral compass. This doesn’t fit well with the situation in 1 Timothy 4, though, where we find overly-strict teachers.

  I have always considered the "conscience" as the moral code that governs the "feelings" of the soul as to "Right or wrong"  In this I liken it to the programming on a computer.. In the soul of the unregenerate this program has been written by the cultural environment of society some of which was influenced by the presence of Christians in that society. Prior to my salvation I was influenced by a Boomer society that promoted a pretty strict program. After salvation a new operating system was installed but my soul still was responding to the old program until the Sanctification process could reprogram. One of the hardest things for my old conscience to grasp was "Grace" . The code I was raised on in the coal mining camps of WVa was "you get what you work for and nothing more" The Holy Spirit worked on reprogramming that part for quite a while. Several particulars :

 1. I learned was the conscience could not be trusted as to its biblical validly but was still a very important part of the human condition that God did not want ignored but "enlightened" to correct biblical foundation through maturity.

2. The conscience is the first to arrive at the scene of a dispute so be aware that initial "feelings" will come from the old program and must be held in suspect.

3. I have always believed that the reference of Timothy to "Seared" conscience of "Liars" was to the position that Lying is against both influences of the conscience by social culture and Holy Spirit and would scream foul unless seared beyond feeling, as pointed out this does seem out of context with "overly strict teachers but again believe it is referring to the deception of liars.

Jim

Dan Miller's picture

 I have always considered the "conscience" as the moral code that governs the "feelings" of the soul as to "Right or wrong"  In this I liken it to the programming on a computer.. In the soul of the unregenerate this program has been written by the cultural environment of society some of which was influenced by the presence of Christians in that society.

In reading your post, I realize that I have left the questions of what the conscience is and does largely unanswered. Your description here is much like what I call the "black box" view of the conscience. Black boxes are computerized devices (such as used on airplanes) that process information. Data go in; answers come out. You don't get to know what happens in the box. Only the FAA and the designers at Rockwell know that. Their contributions are indispensable to modern aircraft. 

This view is common. The problem I have with it is that Paul treats the conscience as much more the product of the active mind than that. 

John Murray, in his Romans Commentary, is careful to separate "one's conscience" from "one's understanding of right and wrong." 

Romans 2:14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.

The law written on their hearts is part of their understanding of right and wrong. They just know it. Their conscience isn't this law. Rather, their conscience acts to accuse or excuse based on what is written on their hearts. In this way, conscience is more of a verb and the heart-law is more of a noun.

For Paul, the heart-law is conditioned by society, nature,Scripture, etc. And the conscience is an action of our mind. That action might be subject to habits of thought and unthinking responses, but it ought to be the product of deliberate thought.

jreeseSr's picture

For Paul, the heart-law is conditioned by society, nature,Scripture, etc. And the conscience is an action of our mind. That action might be subject to habits of thought and unthinking responses, but it ought to be the product of deliberate thought.

Absolutely ....Paul also mentions a "weak" or immature conscience that must be strengthened by the "Let this mind be in you" process of knowledge programming the souls "proper" response ,,such as the case of immature believers response to Pauls eating of meat sacrificed to idols.. The conscience is an important element of the soul of every believer and over time must be matured but God gives us instruction not to offend this conscience at whatever state we find it.

 

 

Jim

Dan Miller's picture

Paul also mentions a "weak" or immature conscience that must be strengthened by the "Let this mind be in you" process of knowledge programming the souls "proper" response ,,such as the case of immature believers response to Pauls eating of meat sacrificed to idols.

I must point out: this view of "weak" is exactly what I'm arguing against through this series. Are you aware of that?

I do NOT believe that for Paul, "'weak' = immature."

Often the strong need "knowledge" and that knowledge should make them "weak." (See Part 2.)

jreeseSr's picture

Dan , as I read your piece I was mostly focused on your description of the "Seared" conscience, I must admit I was of the impression of "hot iron" seared , and your explanation was interesting. I reread and picked up on your definition of "weak" also.

How would you define "weaker brethren" ?  

 

 

 

Jim

Dan Miller's picture

Weaker brethren are brothers who weak. "Being weak" = "being unable." That is "unable" in English better captures what Paul was talking about when he said "weak in faith." The "in faith" part relates to the fact that this sphere of inability is rooted in our confidence (faith) that an action is good.

It could be the inability to do something that no one should be confident to do: "I am unable to murder my neighbor." (Paul didn't use this as an example.)

It could be the inability to do something that [pretty much] no one should be confident to do: "I am able to drink the cup of demons and the cup of the Lord." (Paul did use this one - 1Cor10:21.)

It could be the inability to do something that a lot of people can't do and that is a reasonable application of Bible Principles. "I am unable to treat every day alike. I think we should still respect Sabbath in some ways." (What things each weaker brother does differently on Sunday is up to his conscience.)

It could be immaturity. "I am unable to eat ham." This was a perfectly mature, Biblical, correct statement in the Old Testament. Was this an example Paul used for the weak in Romans or 1Cor? I think not (see Part 1). I think the meat-avoidance referred to in Romans 14 had to do with idol-tainted food. The diet of the weak was "vegetables," not lamb. 

The idea that weakness is related to immaturity is an assumption. And I believe it is a wrong assumption. In Part 1, I argue that Paul uses respectful language for the conclusions of the weak throughout these passages. Paul himself joins the unable (weak) side on Temple-Meat Eating and marriage.

The weak=immature assumption is disastrous to the understanding of these passages.

So, to clearly answer your question, "weaker brethren" are those who, because of their understanding of God's Word and how to apply it, are not confident that they can do something, including every appropriate application that we would encourage. 

Dan Miller's picture

Alex, thanks for the link. That was very good. I understand the inclination not to get bogged down. But look at this part:

(5) How, then, does the argument of 1 Corinthians 8 relate to the argument of 1 Corinthians 10:14–22, where it appears that the apostle Paul absolutely forbids eating the sacrifices of pagans, which is nothing other than participating in demonic worship? It is difficult to be absolutely certain, but it appears that in 1 Corinthians 8 what is permitted in principle is the eating of meat that has been offered to idols, while in 1 Corinthians 10 what is prohibited is eating meat that is part of participating in any service or worship or cult or rite that is tied to pagan deities. And this affords us another insight: actions that may belong to the adiaphora, i.e., that are rightly judged disputable, may in certain cultural contexts become absolutely condemned, thus now belonging in the indisputable column.

This is a common viewpoint. That the idol-meat allowed in 1Cor8 is market-idol-meat but that the meat forbidden in 1Cor10 is temple-idol-meat. 

The problem is the Text of 1Cor8:10 "For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol's temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols?"

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

It would be interesting to hear Carson's take on that statement and what it implies about what Paul was allowing and forbidding.

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